Leader Of Kremlin-Backed Separatists In Ukraine Planning ‘Referendum’ To Join Russia

The leader of territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine's Luhansk region has said he plans on holding a "referendum" on accession to Russia, a move that will escalate tensions between the Kremlin and the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions in February before launching a war against Ukraine to bring the country back under the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

Putin has backed separatists that control parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions with money, weapons, and troops since 2014 as he seeks to prevent Ukraine from joining Western-led organizations including the European Union and NATO.

"I think a referendum will be held in the near future," Leonid Pasechnik, the Luhansk separatist leader, said on March 27, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

Russia is reportedly discussing the pros and cons of a "referendum."

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that such a vote in Luhansk would not be recognized.

"The Russian Federation does not abandon attempts to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Any fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are legally null and void and will have no legal consequences," ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko said in a statement to RFE/RL.

"But Russia will receive an even more decisive response from the international community, which will accelerate its fall into the abyss of global isolation," Nikolenko said.

The Kremlin tightly controls elections inside Russia and in territories it holds to generate the outcome it seeks.

After seizing Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin immediately pushed through a "referendum" on joining Russia. Though Moscow claims citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor of annexation, a leaked report from its Human Rights Council two months later put turnout at only 30 percent, with about half of those voting to join Russia.

The internationally community deemed the vote to be rigged and only a few countries today recognize the peninsula as part of Russia.

The West has imposed sanctions preventing its companies from doing business in Crimea. It has also imposed sanctions on the separatist-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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